26 April 2011

A Liverpool legend shares the importance of fitness and nutrition in playing football at the top level.

THE black hair and moustache of his heyday may have gone, but about 10 years after retiring from professional football, Ian Rush’s physique is still pretty much intact.

At 49 years of age, the former Liverpool striker is still able to train with the boys, which is important as he is currently the Liverpool FC Soccer School ambassador.

This means that he gets to travel around the world, meeting and helping train the next generation of football players, as well as bringing them a bit of Anfield (Liverpool’s home stadium).

During his career, the Welshman earned a formidable reputation on the field as one of the most prolific goal scorers in football history,

Not only does Rush hold the record of most number of goals scored for Liverpool – 346 in 660 appearances, he is also the top goal scorer for FA Cup finals, with five goals in four finals, and is second only to Notts County’s Henry “Harry” Cursham for the most number of goals netted in the FA Cup, with 44 goals to Cursham’s 49 (the last scored in 1887).

As you can imagine, the physical and mental form needed for this level of play for the 23 years of Rush’s professional career demands iron discipline and unfaltering consistency.

Eating right

Rush first started to realise his talent in football at the age of 11, when he scored 72 goals in 30 games while playing for his school team.

“I think that was when I started thinking that I would enjoy playing football (for a living, and that) I liked what I was doing,” he told reporters during an interview session in Petaling Jaya recently.

His ability to find the net did not go unnoticed for long, and by the age of 14, he was signed to Chester City Football Club in the English football league’s first division as a schoolboy.

He says: “I think from when I was 14, that’s really when I wanted to be a professional footballer.”

After finishing school at 16, Rush signed on at Chester City FC as a full-time professional player.

That was when the reality of having to keep fit, and constantly train and condition his body for the high level of energy and athleticism required for the professional level, really hit him.

“When I was training full-time, for the first time, I was just coming home and falling asleep because the training was so difficult and so hard.

“And I realised then that you just have to stay in, and eat the right food and the right drinks for you to perform the next day as well,” he shares.

At 18, his career kicked up a notch as he not only signed on with Liverpool, but also made his international debut for the Welsh football team.

Fitness and nutrition were major factors for the footballer, who was known for his persistency in running after the ball.

In preparing for a game, the most important components of Rush’s diet were carbohydrates and protein. “It’s the right carbohydrates that you have to eat, because it fuels your muscles, and white meat or fish (for protein), because red meat takes too long to digest,” he says.

While rice was a major component of his diet, it was his one-year sojourn in Italy when he moved to Juventus in 1987, where he discovered pasta.

“I used to, in Italy, just eat loads of pasta to keep me going,” he says. However, he adds that he had to be careful about the type of sauces that he took with his pasta or rice. “You need the right energy, but if you’re mixing it with the wrong sauces, then that doesn’t help at all.”

Fluids were also very important.

“What we had were energy drinks before the game, and recovery drinks after.”

The energy drinks consisted of high-glucose fluids like Gatorade, to provide high levels of energy during the game, while recovery drinks were water-based to replenish the body’s fluids.

In order to keep up their energy levels during a game, Rush and his fellow footballers would snack on items that could provide quick energy, like biscuits, fruit gums and Jaffa cakes.

Mental attitude

While physical fitness was crucial to performing well, Rush emphasises that mental strength is equally important to be a top sportsman.

“When you come down to it, football is not just the physical side on the field, you need the mental strength and the mental toughness to do it,” he says.

“Strong stamina is vital, but you also need to be mentally aware.

“If you are tired, you lose concentration, and especially when you’re playing at the top, even half a second is vital during a game,” he adds.

And it’s not all about playing the game. Getting enough rest and eating right in between games to recover properly is also vital.

“We were told to eat straight after the game. Even if we didn’t like to eat, we were encouraged to eat sandwiches at the end of the game to recover as quickly as possible,” he explains.

And when it came to recovering quickly when there were games every few days, Rush says it was all about getting enough rest.

“The adrenaline is still pumping through you when you finish a game, especially if you won the game and you’re still on a high.

“Basically you have to try to cope with that, and get plenty of rest and eat the right food at the right time.”

He admits that it was sometimes easier said than done, because many people find it difficult to sleep or even eat after a game, particularly if they have won.

“It’s your mental strength. That’s what you learn because when you don’t do it, you’ll find out you don’t play well in the next game,” he says.

He adds that a lot of footballers nowadays do a lot of yoga, which not only helps them to relax and prepare for the next game, but also provides them with good stretching exercises, which helps in recovery.

A matter of pride

Being a top sportsman requires sacrifices.

For example, Rush shares that although he does not like to eat first thing in the morning, he made himself eat boiled or scrambled eggs in the morning during training as it was important to have regular meals.

“You need dedication both on and off the pitch, to be disciplined and have the right food,” he says.

“You have to sacrifice things to be successful, and that’s what all these players do.”

And he did it for so long that even now, he keeps to much the same diet.

“From my point of view, I’ve been doing it for so long anyway, I like to keep it the same.

“A lot of players when they do stop playing football, they put on lots of weight. That is simply because they trained so hard when they played, that when they stop playing, they just come to their normal weight,” he explains.

“But I think it’s important, especially for the job I’m doing as well, I like to keep myself fit, and keep to some sort of diet because the kids that I train most probably didn’t see me play – it’s the parents that have seen me – so if you’re not fit and when you’re demonstrating, they might think, ‘Are you sure he’s played football? Look at the size of him.’” So it is a matter of professional pride with him to keep as fit as he can.

Rush’s current fitness regime consists of running everyday for about 20 to 90 minutes, depending on his schedule.

He also goes to the gym two to three times a week, and does a lot of leg weights, just like when he was playing professionally, although not as intensely.

In addition, he continues to play games for the Liverpool FC Former Players Association, and trains with the Liverpool team when they prepare for matches.

He adds that the running also helps to settle his mind and gets him ready for the day ahead.

Rush was in town to help launch the collaboration between Liverpool FC and Kraft Foods to help discover and train Malaysian footballers between 12 and 15 years of age.

The year-long exercise will see these young football players being trained locally by a Liverpool FC Academy coach, as well as local coaches.

The best three players will have the opportunity to undergo a training stint at the academy itself in Britain, as well as attend a match at Anfield.

This article was published in www.thestar.com.my on 16 March 2011.